Friday, May 24, 2013

Alphabet Day: How Bulgaria Learned the АБВ's

A statue of Cyril and Methodius in front of the National Library in Bulgaria that  bears their name.

Today is a national holiday in Bulgaria.  We celebrate the brothers Cyril and Methodius.  These brothers were born in the 9th century in Thessaloniki Greece.  If this city sounds familiar to you it may be because there are two books of the Bible named after it.  The apostle Paul started a church in Thessaloniki in the first century.  He spent about a year with them and then he left, yet the Thessalonians remained on his heart as you can read in the two letters he wrote to them.

Apparently the church in Thessaloniki thrived to the point where 800 years later two brothers felt its influence.  When I visited Thessaloniki back in 2010 I imagined these two brothers looking out at the mountains to the north and thinking about the people who lived there.  One day they would leave their home and travel north to share the Bible with the Balkan tribes.  They brought the more than just spiritual knowledge to what is now modern day Bulgaria.  They brought an alphabet.  That alphabet has changed a bit in the past 1,100 years, but it has retained the name of Cyril and today is called the Cyrillic alphabet.  It is used in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, and many other countries.

During the communist era there was a bit of historical revisionism on the part of the public school system.  Bulgarians were taught of the two brothers who invented the alphabet, but they were taught that these brothers were Bulgarian, not Greek missionaries to Bulgaria.  (The communist government did not like religion of any sort, and to attribute anything good to Christian missionaries was frowned upon.)  This may be partly true as it is believed that the brothers may have been partly of Balkan decent.  Yet they were likely no more Bulgarian than I am Swedish.  (I am a tiny bit of Swedish decent, which explains why I go to Ikea once a week.)  Despite the fall of communism over two decades ago, the belief that these two were Bulgarian remains popular today.

These brothers were great men who shaped the world in ways beyond what we can fathom.  Not one person in Bulgaria is untouched by their legacy.  They deserve a day to celebrate what they did not only for the people of Bulgaria, but much of eastern Europe and Asia as well.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Prayer in the Face of Tragedy

This week, a tornado tore through Oklahoma with devastating results.  As usually happens after such events, several celebrities posted statements stating that they are praying for the victims.  Other celebrities responded by mocking those who are praying stating that prayer does nothing.  The thought seems to be that if prayer worked tornadoes would not happen, nor would anything else bad.  Normally I pay little attention to the opinions of celebrities.  Just because someone can play the guitar well does not mean that he is qualified to speak on spiritual or political issues, and it would be quite foolish to trust the word of someone whose profession is to pretend to be someone they are not (like an actor).  However the sentiment against prayer deserves some evaluation as it is one that many people from all walks of life hold.

The argument goes something like this:
If prayer works, all prayers to a good God would always be answered with a good result.  All prayers are not answered as is evident by evil in the world.  Therefor prayer does not work (and likely there is no God).

There are two flaws in this argument.

The first flaw is the assumption is that God will always answer prayers when asked.  The undeniable fact that many prayers go unanswered is given as proof that prayer does not work, or at best seldom works.  This is the appliance version of God.  God is viewed similar to a toaster.  If I put bread in a toaster and return a few minutes later to find the bread unaltered, the assumption would be that the toaster is not working.  The logic goes like this, "I put bread in the toaster.  It does not turn to toast.  Therefor, the toaster does not work."  When applied to prayer, the logic looks like this, "I pray to a god.  The prayer is not answered.  Therefor, this god does not work."

The flaw in this argument is that gods are not toasters.  Deities, if they exist, have personality.  We should therefor apply the same rules to their decision making as we do to other people.  I may send a letter to the president, and he may or may not reply to my letter.  He may or may not act on it.  Yet for me to assume that the president does not exist or is not working because he does not answer my letter is foolishness.  He is a person with his own will.  He can do as he pleases and he may decide not to answer my letter.  In the case of the president he will almost certainly not answer my letter.  Who am I that he should hear my petition?  (This is also a question we must ask of any deity we pray to.  Why should any god listen to you?)

The second flaw is that a good god will always answer prayer with a good result.  One might argue, "I buy that gods are personal beings, yet if so they are either evil and will not answer prayers with good results, or are impotent and cannot answer prayers with good results.  Therefor why pray."

This argument makes two assumptions.  The first is that the praying party knows the difference between good and best.  A good god may well allow bad things to happen because he knows there are better results to be gained if he allows evil to happen.  God could override the free will of all living things.  This would eliminate evil.  It would also eliminate love as true love demands a choice.  God could also wipe out every evil person on earth and allow only the good people to remain.  Yet if he did this, would you be among those who God deems good enough to live?  Christianity shows God making great sacrifices for the sake of a greater good.  The greatest sacrifice was Himself.  One could argue, if God is good and all powerful, why did Jesus die?  Personally I'm glad that particular bad event happened because it led to my salvation and adoption as a son of God.

The second assumption is that a good god even hears your prayer.  Ask yourself, "Am I really a good person?  Am I good enough that a good god should even listen to me?  Am I even significant enough to this god?"  One reason a god may not answer your prayers is that he is not listening to your prayers.  You may not have his ear.

If you want to make sure God hears your prayers, I have both bad news and good news for you.  The bad news is that you are not good enough that God should hear you.  Neither am I.  Everyone on this planet is by nature a bad person.  If you don't believe me just look at the world around you.  How much evil do you see?  One may argue that the evil around us is the work of a few bad people, but the whole of humanity is mostly good.  If this were the case, the good humans would quickly undo the bad that the evil humans do.  Have you ever seen something wrong and done nothing to fix it?  You probably did today and didn't even realize it.  In that knowledge, can you still claim to be a good person?  The good news is that Jesus' death paid the penalty for the bad in you, so God no longer holds the evil things you have done against you.  More than that, He rose again so that through Him we can be adopted as children of God.  And being a child of God makes you significant enough to be heard by Him.

This offer of adoption as a child of God is available to all who believe.  But don't take my word for it.  Read John 1:12 "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."  You can become his child too if you believe.  And then you will know that your prayers are heard by the Lord of the universe who will answer in the way that is best.  Why would you not want this?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Election Results

Sunday was election day in Bulgaria.  The results are now in, and the result is . . . gridlock.

There were four winners in the election.  The GERB party took the most votes at just over 31%.  GERB is a moderate-conservative group.  Their name "GERB" is both an acronym and a word play.  "Gerb" is the Bulgarian word for "coat of arms."  This was the party that stepped down earlier this year under the pressure of nation wide protests.

The socialist (also know as the communist) party also took some seats with just over 27% of the overall vote.  The other two lesser parties were the "MRF" or "Movement for Rights and Freedom" party (sometimes referred to as the Turkish party because most of its members are from the ethnic Turkish minority of Bulgaria), and the nationalist "Ataka" party.  Both of these groups won less than 10% of the vote, but enough to win seats in parliament.

So what does all this mean?  As you probably notice, none of the groups scored a majority victory.  As such, no party can form a government unilaterally.  There are talks of a coalition between two parties to achieve a majority and get things done.  Right now it seems that a coalition between GERB and Ataka is the most likely.  For now the election has left a feeling of uncertainty.  There was no decisive victory, so there is no certainty as to the the direction of the country.

We shall see what happens.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

So You Want to Teach, Eh?

This morning I read Matthew 22 and 23.  In these chapters Jesus had a very heated confrontation with the first century religious leaders of Jerusalem.  What got me was what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30:

"And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'"

You see, the first century teachers did not view themselves with the harsh criticism that Jesus and the writers of The New Testament did.  They thought highly of themselves.  They did not realize that they were making the same mistakes their ancestors made.

Are we making the same mistakes?

Those of us who teach the Bible today need to be very careful not to copy our first century counterparts.  The first century teachers pushed very hard to do good things.  They told others to do them too. Jesus even said that what they taught should be listened to.  In Matthew 23:1-2 Jesus said, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you."  But Jesus didn't stop there, "But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy cumbersome loads and put them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."

How easy it is to tell someone the right thing to do.  How difficult it is to do it ourselves.  What good is a teacher if he tells people to not lie, gossip, or slander; to love our neighbors and do good to those who do evil to us?  If the teacher does not follow his own teaching he is worse than useless?  Make no mistake my fellow teachers, we will be seen for what we are.  Let's not strain out others' gnats but swallow camels ourselves.  Let's not make the same mistakes our first century counterparts made.  Let's practice what we preach.